Archive for Thursday, September 14, 2006

Statue honors all-black parachute unit

September 14, 2006

Like the fires they fought in the mid-1940s, the men of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion displayed determination and toughness.

As members of the first and only all-black World War II parachute organization, known as the Triple Nickles, they blazed a trail in spite of doubt and discrimination.

Those efforts were honored Thursday, Sept. 7, at Fort Leavenworth, where a bronze bust of a paratrooper was unveiled and dedicated, ensuring a permanent tribute to their service.

Assembled in 1943, the original test platoon of 17 men trained at Fort Benning, Ga.

The platoon proved itself, and in 1944 the battalion was formed and stationed at Camp Mackall, N.C., as it prepared for what its members thought would be upcoming World War II operations in Europe or the Pacific.

Instead, they received orders to move to Oregon and assist the U.S. Forest Service.

Nicknamed the Triple Nickles because of the battalion's numerical designation, they became the first military smokejumpers, battling forest fires in the northwestern United States.

Working in a secret mission called Operation Firefly, they protected the forests of the Pacific Northwest from balloons carrying firebombs launched from Japan.

The paratroopers logged more than 1,200 individual jumps and fought 36 fires during the summer of 1945.

The 555th was integrated into the 82nd Airborne Division in 1947.

At their first reunion in 1979, the founding members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association changed the official spelling of Triple Nickels to Triple Nickles.

Retired 1st Sgt. Walter Morris, an original member of the Triple Nickles and the first enlisted black man accepted for airborne duty, attended the celebration at the fort.

Now 85, Morris called the event "beautiful."

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, told the crowd about the barriers the Triple Nickles faced, including banishment from post exchange facilities open to German and Italian prisoners of war.

Still, Petraeus said, they proudly served their country.

"These great paratroopers walked point for their race and for our country, facing down discrimination by standing in the door as one and jumping into our nation's history," he said.

Located near the Buffalo Soldier Monument, the sculpture's base displays that statement, along with the 17 original members' names.

Petraeus proposed the tribute soon after he arrived at Fort Leavenworth in 2005, said Carlton Philpot, a retired Navy commander who also helped bring the Buffalo Soldier Monument to the fort in the early 1990s.

In April, Petraeus and Philpot spoke with Joe Murchison, president of the 555th Parachute Infantry Association, about creating a permanent reminder of the battalion's contributions.

The group enlisted artist Eddie Dixon, of Texas, for the mission, which had to be completed by early September, in time for the association's annual reunion at Fort Leavenworth.

Dixon, who also created the Buffalo Soldier Monument, had only four months to carry out the task.

Meanwhile, Philpot and others hurriedly worked with military historians and experts to verify the monument's details for historical accuracy.

Philpot drove to Texas on Sept. 2. He returned to Kansas with Dixon and the sculpture at 4 a.m. Sept. 5, just two days before the ceremony.

Philpot said the bust, which had just left the foundry, was still warm when the two men began their journey to the fort.

"We had to keep checking it with the back of our hands so we could pick it up" just "like you'd check a baby bottle," he said.

Vincent Wilburn Sr., 84, traveled from Phoenix, to attend the ceremony and the association's national reunion with several family members and friends.

The retired captain spoke of the different challenges African-American servicemen face today, compared to several decades ago, when he began his 28-year career in the Army.

"They don't have the inequality we suffered," he said. "We had to sit in the back of the bus and we had a uniform on. We were going to fight for democracy and we didn't even have it here."


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